Do Dogs Bite Out of the Blue?

I prepared this slide for my Dogs and Babies – Play It Safe! class as a way to illustrate one reason why dog bites to children might seem to happen “out of the blue.”

Before thinking more closely about it, we tend to think that “Good Dogs” live on the left side of the continuum and “Bad Dogs” live to the right.  That’s because good dogs don’t bite children, do they?  Once you determine that you have a “Good Dog,” you tend to leave it at that and just go about your life with dog and baby.

What we forget to consider is that just like us, dogs have good days and bad days.  On any given day, at any given time, your dog is somewhere along that continuum.  Have you ever had one of those days?  You know…bad day at work, skipped lunch, lots of traffic, big headache?  You come home and even something minor goes wrong and isn’t it possible that you may “snap” at someone you love?

It’s the same with dogs.  Even over the course of a single day, your dog may go from feeling relaxed and easy-going to tense and cranky — just like you.  Living with babies and small children can make for a grueling day.  That 4:30-6:30 time that used to be known as Happy Hour?  It’s often the LEAST happy time with tired parents, babies crying, kids squabbling and a parent trying to make dinner.  Everyone is a bit on edge and that includes the family dog.

The trick to preventing bites is to really look at your dog.  What does he or she look like when relaxed and happy?  What changes when your dog is getting a little worried or overwhelmed?  Where is your dog right now on that body language continuum?  Take mental snapshots throughout the day and place your dog along that line.  Learn the body language changes that signal moves in one direction or another.  (See “Look, Ma!  My Body Is Talking to You!“)

From For the Love of a Dog, by Patricia McConnell, PhD:

I don’t know how many times broken-hearted clients have told me that Barney had been doing so well; he’d handled the noise and chaos of the family picnic all day long, but just when everyone was about to leave, he fell apart and snapped, or nipped, or bit…If people could just see the signs of exhaustion or worry on their dogs’ faces, there’d be a lot fewer bites in the world, a lot fewer tears, and a lot more dogs living to old age.

At every moment of the day, your dog is giving you a status update.  You just need to look and your dog will tell you.  (See post to follow on steps you can take to move your dog more to the relaxed side of the line.)

Snaps and bites seem to surprise parents because parents consider that vast in-between area of increasing discomfort as “Fine” because the dog is not overtly growling or running away, leading to conclusions such as, “The dog was fine and then he bit the baby.”  Really, unless the dog clearly looks relaxed and happy, he is not “fine.”   This doesn’t mean your dog is going to bite your child right then or ever, but it does mean that your dog needs some help to better manage in that situation.  Otherwise, he’s just going to follow down the path of becoming more and more uncomfortable as his body language requests for help go unheeded.

How far down the path does your dog have to go before he “falls off the cliff” and responds in a way that makes sense for a dog but changes everything for your family?    You have to know where your dog is and you have to know what causes your dog to move down the path.  For example, when your child crawls by, how does your dog’s body language change?  Are there times of day when your dog is more anxious?  Activities that may put your dog on edge (like kids running through the house shooting darts at each other)?

Your dog needs extra help at these times.  Your dog’s body language progression is his or her way of telling you, “I can’t handle this and I don’t know what to do to make it better.”  I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a family to make accommodations for the dog.  There have been many times I’ve said, “Our dog is getting worried.  You must walk slowly in the house and speak quietly or take your game outside.”

I know I’m a little hyper-vigilant because of my work with dogs and babies (and the career-limiting issue it would be if my own dog bit my children!), but, really, wouldn’t you like to know where your dog is, too?

Rarely should it ever be a surprise when a dog bites a child.  But, of course, that’s why the bites are happening in the first place, right?  Because parents didn’t notice the early warning signs that would have prompted them to move the child or change the situation .  Once you know how to look, you’ll spot them every time and you will have the power to intervene long before anything happens.

P.S.  Remember to look at other people’s dogs, too.  Don’t rely on someone telling you their dog is “fine with children” — because now you know that “fine” is never good enough.

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  1. I really like the idea of the “status update,” happening all day with dogs.
    Do you find it hard to get your clients to note those things and really take the time to learn how to read their dogs?
    I know people want things easy, so I was wondering if you have tips for busy owners on how to take in that information?
    Nan Arthur, CDBC, CPDT, KPACTP

    1. Hello Nan – Thank you for commenting and for your question. The status update term makes me laugh because it makes me think of Facebook and how quick we are to check in to see what random friends had for lunch or whatever. Meanwhile, here are our dogs right in front of us showing it all in living color.

      The thing I’ve found is that once people know their dogs are “talking” to them, it’s not hard to get in the habit of looking to see what you can see. The body language is pretty clear once people see and can compare and contrast examples. In my class, I show a LOT of pictures and video and it seems like most everyone gets it. (I’ll add a blog post with those illustrations when I get to it.)

      If someone needed to cut down to one body language thing, I like Patricia McConnell’s shortcut of open/closed mouth. From For the Love of a Dog:

      “Dogs will close their mouths when they’re on alert, and watching a mouth go from open to closed is a good way to know your dog has begun to concentrate on a change in the environment…A closed jaw by itself can’t tell you whether the dog is alerting to the chirp of a chipmunk or signaling to you that he’s about to bite, but going from open to closed is a key indicator that your dog is no longer in a happy-go-lucky frame of mind.”

      The other thing is to proceed from an assumption that the dog probably doesn’t like whatever it is the kids are doing. If it can’t be stopped, your job is to make it worth your dog’s while and/or give the dog more space. That way, you don’t have to obsess over every bit of body language. In class, I focus so much on body language to help people see that real life dogs aren’t Lassie and to demonstrate that many dogs are uncomfortable with contact we tend to excuse or encourage in our very young children.

  2. This is the first time I’ve visted this blog, thanks to Nan Arthur for posting about it on yahoo groups. This was such great information. People just don’t seem to understand that dogs have good and bad moods, or even worse they don’t seem to think dogs are entitled to have bad moods. I’ve seen instances in my own family where a very stressed dog reacted by snaping and the whole family came down on him like a ton of bricks. This post gives an expert opinion to back up what I’ve tried to explain. Thanks

    1. Hello Mary! Nice to “meet” you! I know what you’re saying in your example above. It’s really hard not to come down on the dog in reaction to growling or snapping because it triggers a rush of fear and horror in people. It’s a natural reaction, affected also by feeling embarrassed and worried about being perceived as the one with a “bad dog.”

      For all the emotion and energy people put into reacting after the fact, you’d think it should somehow rewind time and make it like the incident never happened. I tell people in class, “‘No’ is not an eraser!” Saying “No” doesn’t undo what just happened.

      The example of the continuum is meant to help people see that they DO have the power to change outcomes if they can intervene earlier in the sequence. Knowing that dogs have bad days doesn’t excuse a bite — it’s not like people can just chalk it up to a bad day and not make any changes going forward. It’s more that this knowlege is something that was missing in many of the bite consultations I’ve done. Once it’s very clear in hindsight, people say things along the lines of, “If I knew the dog was distressed, I never would have let the child do X.” Prevention was right there waiting all along.

  3. Excellent article! Thanks! I have posted a link to it in the Parents section and the Why Do Dogs Bite section at the Doggone Safe site.

  4. “Once you know how to look, you’ll spot them every time and you will have the power to intervene long before anything happens.”

    Yes, every parent should learn to read and respond correctly to canine communication, but it is nit true that this gives the 100% protection you suggest. Some dogs are impulsive, and give minimal warning. You can read them, but you may not have the time to react and intervene. Also, some people are just not very good at reading dogs. It’s not their fault, I’m no good at tennis. The difference is that I find out how bad my tennis is as soon as I step onto the court. It’s there for all to see. When do you find out you’ve misread your dog? Maybe when it bites your child? If your dog is already known to be aggressive to children, or afraid of them, you are going to have to be the Pete Sampras of dog reading to keep your kids safe. You can’t learn that from a book.
    My advice is that if your dog is relaxed and confident with kids, follow the advice on learning canine communication, never allow kids to put your dog under pressure, and be sensible. If you have a dog that is aggressive towards, or frightened of, children you should keep your dog away from kids and get professional advice. Not from some untrained crank who goes on about “you need to be the leader of the pack” and all that nonsense, but someone who is realistic and not on an ego trip.

  5. I love animals just as much as the next person. And often as not, a dog bites a baby when the owner forgets the dog is a dog. Example; Leaving a baby on the floor with dogs unattended is recipe for disaster. Feeding or leaving a dog its food in proximity to where a baby is lying, sitting or crawling is an absolute no! I think it’s important here to remember that as a parent, our first concern must be our baby. An unusually tough transition for some pet owners to make. It isn’t that you are lowering your love for your pet, but in all reality this is your child and a human child is far more helpless than the family pet. One should not underestimate the psychology of a dog. Dogs can exhibit animosity, distrust, envy and even greed. Dog’s have a pack mentatlity and the addition of a baby requires it to determine the position the baby has in relationship to the pack. If you or your husband are alpha poitions and the dog or dogs are subordinate to you, there is no reason for the dog to inherently know that the child is not the lowest of the pack.

    Be a rational parent. Love the dog, but love the child and protect it from the dog. Protecting your child is not a form of mistreatment to your pet.

    1. Hello Dan – Thank you for taking the time to comment. You are right that there are some crazy situations people get into when they believe that the dog “loves” the baby and thus understands exactly how to care for it. I mean, think of the literally pages of instructions new parents leave with a babysitter, but expect the dog to instinctively know what to do! In Karen Delise’s book, “Fatal Dog Attacks – the Stories Behind the Statistics,” she discusses a subset of infant fatalities where it was surmised that the dog was trying to “carry” the baby somewhere. When you think of a baby puppy left unattended, it would make sense to a “caring” dog to pick up that puppy and carry it to safety. Yikes, dog sense makes no sense with human infants! I like your point, too, about how helpless a human infant is. Protecting the baby always trumps wanting the Lassie fantasy.

      I don’t agree as much with applying pack theory to family life. I’m more about setting up and reinforcing the behaviors you want to see from the dog in your real life situations. I emphasize a lot in my classes that, “It’s YOUR baby, not the dog’s baby.” It’s no different than anything else you want to train your dog to remain calm and attentive to you around. Any “issue” the dog has with the baby can be reframed as something between the dog and the owner and, thus, resolved. I just don’t go down the dominance/pack theory path because I don’t find as many clear remedies. I like to see dogs offering the behaviors I’ve taught and reinforced as a way of confirming that they are in sync with what I think I trained.

      I’ve got another post coming about rethinking the idea of a dog being a “first baby” rather than a dog. I think you’ll find that in line with your thought, too. Thanks again!

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